Social Activity May Protect Elderly Against Disability

Posted Thu, 03/17/2011 - 1:42pm by Fred Lee

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As we get older, we have to confront a number of physical challenges that come with age, including changes in our muscles, bones, minds, and overall metabolism. The effects of time on our bodies raises our risk for an injury and increases the chance of becoming disabled.

With this in mind, health experts recommend that seniors remain active in order to stay sharp both physically and mentally. Ways to achieve this end include a good diet, plenty of exercise, and reducing one's consumption of alcohol and tobacco.

One area that is equally important, though not as obvious, is a person's level of social activity. This is largely due to the emotional and psychological benefits of having a support network in the form of family and friends.

Now, however, researchers believe that when seniors maintain high levels of social activity, it appears to reduce their risk for developing a disability as they age. Activities range from going out to eat to taking short overnight trips, as well as simply getting together to play games such as bingo or scrabble.

The data, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, is the result of a study that followed 954 seniors who were on average 82 years of age. None of the participants had any form of disability at the beginning of the study. Over the course of the investigation, they were given yearly examinations to assess their physical, neurological, and emotional status.

Levels of social activity were measures by way of questionnaires that determined how often, if ever, subjects went out to eat, attended sporting events, played bingo, participated in volunteer work, were active with a religious group, went on day or overnight trips, or visited friends and relatives.

To determine whether a person was disabled and to what degree, subjects took part in a series of daily physical activities to see if they could perform them independently, including eating, bathing, and dressing themselves. Mobility and strength were measured by seeing if the subjects could go up and down a flight of stairs, walk a half mile, and do heavy housework. Finally, dexterity was assessed by measuring how effectively seniors could perform "instrumental activities," such as the using a telephone or the preparing meals for themselves.

What researchers observed was that people who were socially active were two times more likely to avoid disabilities pertaining to daily activities when compared to people who were not socially active. Being socially active also reduced the risk for disabilities involving instrumental activities by 1.5 times.

The findings recognize the importance of socialization, not just from an emotional perspective but a physical one, as well. Social activity is also an easily modifiable risk factor that can be affected in a positive way by various means. The reason that social activity has this effect is not clear, though it may encourage movement and thought processes that help to strengthen both the body and the mind.

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